Fatal blindness

(from the Charlotte Observer, 3/11/2003)

UCLA professor Jared Diamond, author of “Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Tates of Human Societies,” speaking a the Rockefeller Institute on March 27:  The Easter Islanders, Polynesian people, settled an island that was originally forested. … The Easter Islanders gradually chopped down that forest to use the wood for canoes, firewood, transporting statues, raising statues, and carving and also to protect against soil erosion.  Eventually they chopped down all the forests to the point where all the tree species were extinct, which meant that they ran our of canoes, they could no longer erect statues, there were no longer trees to protect the topsoil against erosion, and their society collapsed in an epidemic of cannibalism that left 90 percent of the islanders dead.

The question that most intrigued my UCLA students was one that hadn’t registered on me:  How on Earth could a society make such an obviously disastrous decision as to cut down all the trees on which they depended?  For example, my students wondered, what did the Easter Islanders say as they were cutting down the last palm tree?  Were they saying, think of our jobs as loggers, not these trees?  Were they saying, respect my private property rights? … One wonders whether people in the next century will be equally astonished about our blindness today as we are today about the blindness of the Easter Islanders.